The furniture of the wealthy is usually quite easy to date. The rich are, after all, the ones who can afford elaboration, ornamentation and experimentation.
And thanks to pattern books, museums, researchers and wealthy furniture collectors, we actually know a lot about the high styles of furniture, from Sheraton to Chippendale, and Hepplewhite to Federal.
But when you look at furniture for the lowborn, it can be difficult to assign a date of construction without invasive archaeological techniques. Why? Well there are a lot of furniture forms that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years.
These are simple pieces with little ornament. They are usually made from common materials. And yet, the survivors are well-built, well-proportioned and have a grace that in my book exceeds any bonnet-top highboy.
This is the furniture that I have been immersed in for almost two years now in preparation for a book on what I’m calling the “furniture of necessity.” I’ve been trying to identify different forms of furniture that have remained unchanged for 200 years or more.
And while books have been helpful, the biggest gold mine has been results from auction houses that do not specialize in the high-style stuff. And it’s the data sheets from these auctioneers that are of particular interest. In addition to listing the dimensions, materials and provenance, the auction house will usually try to assign a date range for the piece.
With the high-style pieces, this is usually straightforward – unless the piece is a fake. But auctioneers from all walks of life tend to struggle when dating these low-style pieces. For example: One auctioneer estimated that a six-board chest he was selling was made sometime between 1800 and 1950.
That particular guy might be a moron when it comes to dating furniture. But I found that even larger auction houses can have difficulty dating pieces such as six-board chests. They might date a chest such as the one shown above as being built between 1800 and 1850. And if you know anything about the history of furniture, you know that that was a tumultuous time, which should make the piece easy to date.
As part of my research, I’ve been redrawing these antique pieces in SketchUp, which is a way of removing the patina and wear from a piece so you can see its form without being assaulted by marks of its age. The results have been interesting.
When was the piece above built? It measures 40″ long, 18-1/2″ deep and 24″ tall. It’s poplar. But was it made in 1770 or 1870? Or is it modern? Does the date of its construction change the way you evaluate its design?
I don’t have the answers – just the will to dig deeper into this topic.
— Christopher Schwarz